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Language Matters

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While reviewing polling data on Israeli and Palestinian attitudes towards the peace effort, what comes through clearly is the obvious disconnect between the views of both groups and the extent to which this divide is driven by the Israeli-centric language used in framing many of the issues.

The same is true of US policy discussions about the prospects for Middle East peace. For example, when American analysts present the issues to be addressed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they often use terms and accept assumptions that are seen as part of the natural order of things. I am speaking of terms like "settlement blocs," "land swaps," "incitement," references to "Jerusalem neighborhoods" and "the Jewish state."

While Israelis and Americans simply see this language as descriptive of "givens," Palestinians view them as loaded terms that serve to mask injustice. And then when Palestinians reject these assumptions, it is interpreted as evidence of their lack of commitment to peace.

Benjamin Netanyahu said as much recently when he noted that Palestinians "will never recognize a Jewish state and will never give up the right of return ... I will not bring an agreement that would not cancel the right of return and the Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state. These are basic justified conditions as far as the state of Israel is concerned". Mr Netanyahu concluded that because the Palestinians would not accept his terms, they are "showing no sign that they intend to reach a practical and just agreement." In other words, in Mr Netanyahu's mind "if you want peace you will accept my terms and assumptions and reject your own. If you insist on adhering to your own narrative and reality, then you aren't serious about peace."

In the same vein, look at how Israeli "settlement blocs" in the West Bank are now "accepted realities" which Israel will retain in any peace agreement and in exchange for keeping these blocs Israel will provide "land swaps" to the new Palestinian state. This notion of a "trade-off" is no longer even debated. It has become a "given."

This idea of a trade may sound fair to Israelis and Americans, but to many Palestinians, especially those whose lands have been confiscated to make way for a settlement, the idea of "land swap" is nothing more than a term designed to legitimize what is illegitimate.

Take the Israeli settlement of Har Homa, for example. It was built on land Israel confiscated from Bethlehemites. As a result of this Israeli colony and a string of other similar settlements, that little city can't grow and is cut off from Jerusalem.

By now 17,000 Israelis live in Har Homa and Palestinians are asked to see the settlement as an "accepted reality." In return for this injustice, Palestinians are to be offered a "land swap" somewhere else. But the land that will be swapped does nothing for Bethlehem or the families who lost their land, nor does it resolve the injustice done to an entire community by severing their connection to Jerusalem. To them, it amounts to rewarding violations of international law.

For Palestinians, the bottom line here is that Israel decides what's a "given." They decide what they keep and what they swap. All the Palestinians can do is say "no" -- in which case they are portrayed as "hostile to peace."

Then there's the oft-used term "neighborhoods" to describe the settlements in what the Israelis call "Greater Jerusalem." Using "neighborhood" instead of "colony illegally built on occupied and confiscated land" may convey a cosy "down-home" image to Americans, but to Palestinians the monstrous concrete settlements that snake up and down the hills around Jerusalem and strangle tiny ancient Arab villages represent an ugly story of dispossession and denial of rights.

Finally, Mr Netanyahu's charge that Palestinians are engaged in incitement is another example of Israeli control of the terms of discussion. There are, to be sure, outrageous statements that have been made by Palestinian political and religious leaders, but incitement is not just a Palestinian issue. Partners in Mr Netanyahu's own government have called Palestinians "strangers" and called for their expulsion from their lands; major Israeli religious leaders have called Palestinians "snakes" and "cockroaches." There's also the tolerated shrine to the Jewish terrorist who massacred two dozen Arab worshippers in a Hebron mosque. The settlers who, with impunity, strike out against Palestinian farms, shops and homes.

The reality is that while it is almost never acknowledged as such, "incitement" is a two-way street and should not be reduced, as it has been, to a club to be wielded by Israel and the US Congress over the heads of the Palestinian Authority.

Now I don't know what magic tricks President Obama or Mr Kerry have up their sleeves. We are getting close to the deadline when Mr Kerry will put a framework document on the table to guide Israelis and Palestinians through the next phase of the peace process.

I think that we can be reasonably certain that in framing the proposal, attention will be paid to avoiding language that will be insensitive to Israelis. We should also insist that in shaping the US proposal, care will be shown not to frame its language in ways that will immediately be rejected by Palestinians as unjust and insensitive to their needs, as well.